Florida’s manatees, destroyed by famine, face an uncertain future. Wild animals

OOne beautiful July morning, a crowd gathered at a boat launch in Saint-Augustin. Florida Awaiting the arrival of a young man named Manatees named Gerald. The swampy Matanzas River flowed gently around the oyster beds and uncovered islands as biologists organized the equipment. Nearly a dozen spectators wandering along the shore, waiting to see Gérard returning to nature after a few weeks of captivity.

In early spring, beachgoers found a tanned Gerald stranded on the Palm Coast on the Atlantic Ocean, about 25 miles south of St. Augustine. When the rescue team rushed to the scene, the Samaritans covered the weak marine mammals with damp towels to keep it cool and safe from subtropical cyclones. The very skinny Gerald was taken to the Jacksonville Zoo and spent the next 10 weeks in a life-threatening emergency until he was plump enough to return to the wild.

Gerald was one of the lucky ones.

Hundreds of manatees have died this year along Florida’s east coast. This has been termed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration an “abnormal death event”. At least 881 manatees have died. It has far exceeded the average annual death toll of 578 from 2015 to 2020 in Florida since January.

Zero point for the sudden increase in deaths is the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile-long estuary that provides seasonal habitat for thousands of manatees. Decades of water pollution from agriculture and housing development have endangered ecosystems, and manatees have been almost completely destroyed by a man-made disaster, famine.

The current manatee crisis is “just a sign of a system under extreme stress,” said Duane de Freese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Estuary Program, an agency dedicated to protecting waterways.

Currently, scientists and activists are struggling to prevent further disasters.

Animal care specialists in Palm Beach, Florida use ice and water spray to cool manatees and their calves while they wait for them to return to the wild. Photo: Jason Garry

Worrisome diagnosis

Last December, Martine de Wit was intrigued by the ugly tendency of manatees to die at an alarming rate on Florida’s east coast. Dewitt, a veterinarian who autopsies wild Florida fish and manatees. caused by Coldsnap, which brought sub-zero temperatures to Sunshine. Despite their stocky appearance, manatees are non-fat and very sensitive to cold. When temperatures drop below 68 degrees Celsius, they stop eating, start to lose weight, and swarm in their pockets of hot water.

However, as temperatures rose in January, manatee deaths continued to rise. And the first week of February, deWit made a new diagnosis. Tissue samples taken from a corpse in a difficult situation delivered to his laboratory in St. Petersburg showed important organ atrophy – a clear sign of starvation.

“They’re awfully thin,” deWit said. Some were 40% less than their expected weight. The damage was “unprecedented on this scale with these large animals”.

By the end of April, 696 or more manatees had died and federal officials intervened to investigate and respond to the crisis.

Manatee Adventure in Summer Northern to New England For food. In winter, many manatees returned to historically warm waters and were passed down for generations to the abundant feeding of Florida rivers, springs, and coastal lagoons (now a frequent habitat for humans). I followed the route.

Some manatees still spend the winter in this warm water Eden, but there are now thousands Find shelter with a lukewarm discharge from a coastal power station. About 2,000 manatees have become dependent on the Indian River Lagoon power plant for winter warming.

“When installing a power plant, the situation was complicated by providing a hot spring that was not always in the optimal location. [for manatees]”said Mike Walsh, co-director of aquatic animal health at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida.

Manatees are attracted to the hot water discharged from power plants along coastal rivers. It is not the healthiest habitat for marine mammals. Photo: Jason Garry

Walsh said generations of manatees have learned to return to these places. There, algae outbreaks and overgrazing have reduced seagrass cover. When the temperature is low, you are trapped in an invisible wall of cold water and you cannot eat anything. Malnourished manatees burn significant body fat. Lactating calves dry their mothers. Some manatees survive a winter that is too weak to fully recover, and food supplies are scarce for those who do.

“It’s all at stake,” Walsh said. “They are not enough to pass. “

Sea grass field suffocated by human development

Seagrass prairies once spanned about 80,000 acres of the Indian River Lagoon. One of the most biodiverse estuaries in the country. Their roots hold sediments in place, improve water quality and sequester carbon.

These habitats have suffered from coastal development exiled today About £ 2.5million Nitrogen and phosphorus drain into the estuary each year from septic tanks, lawns and farms. Meanwhile, decades of organic matter sank to the bottom as sludge, a sticky substance that leaches out nutrients in the water column.

Manatee deaths in the first six months of 2021 were more record-breaking than any other year.
Manatee deaths in the first six months of 2021 were more record-breaking than any other year. Photo: Jason Garry

Charles Jacoby, environmental specialist in the St. John’s River Water Management District, said:

The combined nutrient load can block sunlight and feed the appearance of violent algae that kill seagrass. Super Bloom, which looks like pea soup in 2011, brought a devastating decade to the Indian River Lagoon. Because of this blue-green algae, nearly 46,000 acres of seagrass have disappeared.

In 2013, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection dredged to remove mud, improve rainwater treatment, and connect homes with leaking septic tanks to sewers to remedy damage to the Indian River Lagoon for 15 years. . The plan has started.

“Unfortunately, there is no quick fix,” Jacoby said. “It takes a lot of effort.”

Pleasure boat driving manatees from important shelters

The official emblem of Crystal River, a town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, has a banner that says “House of the Manatees” and swirls around the image of a well-fed sea cow. Mammals are more than a city mascot – it’s an industry. During the winter, hundreds of manatees are brought to the hot springs at Kingsbay Manatee Preserve. The only place in the country where people can legally swim with manatees, this refuge allows dozens of businesses to offer tours for those eager to meet a gentle giant. Do.

On a sunny June morning, Mike and Stacey Dan boarded a pontoon to tour the bay. During this period, Kingsbay had only dozens of manatees left, most of which fed their mothers and calves. Dan therefore operated for 12 years so as not to interfere with the feeding of the dugongs and calves. Take a summer vacation with your travel agency. channel. Dan knows the bay better than anyone and volunteers to scout for injured animals.

Runoff from agriculture, lawns and septic tanks once killed abundant sea grasslands.
Manatees depend on seagrass beds for food, but spills from agriculture, lawns and septic tanks have once killed abundant sea grasslands. Photo: Paul Rovere / Getty Images

As Dan passed through the crystal-clear canals around Kings Bay, he came across a handful of thin sea grasses uprooted by boat propellers and grazing marine life. Signs of these abundances were seldom seen 10 years before the thick layers of mud and algae solidified the bay. The manatees were hungry for food, and Dan saw him munch on the sawtooth roots and try to sink a small island.

Even in the off season, Kings Bay is crowded and some tours can be arranged year round. Nearby, a group of about 10 people swam on their stomachs, supported by floating noodles and snorkels, as they approached a submerged sea cow. Swimmer said Passive Compliance, As per FWC guidelines, Dan said not all excursions have a no-contact policy.

For Pat Rose, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee, Crystal River is an example of manatee protection and a story of caution. Kings Bay is an important refuge and seagrass restoration projects show how resources can help improve manatee habitat. However, a barrage of activity in the bay can plague the dugongs.

“It creates a lot of harassment and kicks out the manatees,” he said. Florida couldn’t find more such sanctuaries as manatee populations recovered. He fears the dugong is still teetering on the brink of collapse with no designated habitat.

Maybe a “bittersweet” way out to face another famine

A 600-pound rehab manatee, Gerald arrives at the St. Augustine boat launch behind the box truck. In a nearby collection bed, Monica Ross, a researcher at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Institute, prepared a wildlife tracking device. The following year, Ross and his team want to monitor Gerard’s movements and eating habits using satellite tracking beacons that float behind the manatees and send out his location.

By monitoring tagged manatees, Ross can record where they are foraging and how they use the natural heated shelters. This data can inform important winter habitat conservation plans. As energy production shifts away from fossil fuels, the question remains how the manatees will react and where they will go when power plants such as the Indian River Lagoon are shut down.

Seven people took Gerald out of the box on a blue stretcher and poured a bucket of water over him. Having gained over 100 pounds at the Jacksonville Zoo, Gerard came up with an egg-shaped dough. It has no shape but is strong and represents the health of young sea cows. Ross tied the tag to a belt around his tail and the team let the manatees fall into the muddy river of Matanzas. There he disappeared beneath the surface.

The crowd cheered and said goodbye, but the outing was “bittersweet” for Ross. She fears that Gerald will eventually head south to the Indian River Lagoon, where he could face another winter famine.

“Usually when you release an animal you are very happy,” she said. “But we are very worried about what he has to deal with this winter.”

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